- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I have problems with our health insurance “provider,” as I suppose some of you reading this do as well.

I had a minor test done in my doctor’s office. He injected a little pain killer, did the test, and I was gone in about half an hour. The insurance company refuses to pay half the costs, because the doctor anesthetized me, rather than having an anesthesiologist come. Of course, that would have dramatically increased the cost, but that’s what the insurance company demands.

Not too long ago, another doctor sent me to a hospital to have two routine tests performed, which required a general anesthetic in an operating room. My wife went through the same thing a few months before, and the insurance company paid only half because the two tests were performed simultaneously. So I scheduled two visits, on separate days, in the full operating room with the doctor, anesthesiologists, nurses, and who knows what else. I missed two days of work. The insurance company paid twice as much, plus twice the administrative costs for processing two claims. And, of course, I had to run twice the risks of two procedures under general anesthetic. The insurance tail wags the medical dog.

The last time I sought medical help in Italy, I suffered from gastrointestinal distress to such an extent I wasn’t eating. If I can’t eat in Italy, that is serious. The night before I was due to fly to Washington, I was in a hotel near the Milan airport. I wanted to see my doctor in Washington as soon as possible, so I telephoned him to make an appointment. He questioned me about my symptoms and told me I was too sick to fly. We argued, and then he said I could fly, but only if I got a doctor to prescribe ciprofloxacin (“Cipro”) and metronidazole (“Flagyl”) for me to start taking that evening.

I asked the hotel for a doctor. They said it would be faster to go to the clinic at the airport. I followed their advice and found a doctor. He wrote out two prescriptions for me, but said the airport pharmacy had just closed. He directed me to the nearest town with an open pharmacy.

I couldn’t find the drug store. I did find a hospital. I parked in the parking lot, walked in, and asked if I could get the prescriptions filled. The lady got testy and informed me this was a hospital not a pharmacy. I asked for her advice. She told me: “This is a hospital. We practice medicine. If you would like us to treat you, take a seat in the waiting room.” Unable to think of a better course, I went out to my car, grabbed my book, went back into the hospital and settled in for a nice, long read.

After at most five minutes, a male nurse interrupted me. I assumed it was to wrestle with insurance forms in Italian. Instead, the fellow escorted me into a hospital room, where we were joined immediately by a doctor. He spoke English about as well as I speak Italian, so we spoke my language until he ran into problems, then switched to his language until I couldn’t find a word. He questioned me closely about my symptoms. He had me lie down on the bed and started poking and asking me how it felt. He had the male nurse draw some blood, and he ran some other tests. He took a medical history and inspected parts of my anatomy that seemed to have nothing to do with the problem.

I was there six hours. The nurse was in the room with me for all but a few minutes. The doctor was there almost all the time. After a while, he got the test results, which showed I did not have food poisoning, but he wanted to observe me a while longer. Eventually, he concluded I had contracted some kind of intestinal bug, and he gave me a couple of days supply of Cipro and Flagyl.

I checked in with the waspish lady at the front desk to ask how much I owed. She asked me if I had parked in the hospital parking lot. I said yes. She said I owed one euro and 50 pence ($2). I asked how much for the medical care and the medicine. She said that was free. When I got back to Washington, I saw my doctor. He had a few tests run in the office, gave me full prescriptions for Cipro and Flagyl, and billed me $1,000.

Most Americans I talk to have a lot of screwy ideas about medical care. They think Americans have “The Best Health-Care System in the World.” They think “socialized medicine” doesn’t work, because people have to wait too long to get care, and the care isn’t very good and they don’t have any choices.

We have many wonderful doctors, hospitals and pieces of equipment in the U.S. However, statistically, we don’t do so well. Life expectancy, infant mortality, how long people live with a disease after it is diagnosed: You name the criterion, and we don’t compare well with any of the countries that have national health care. And we spend a whole lot more for a lot less health care.

Here are a few comparisons between the U.S. and France. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development: French women live 3-1/2 years longer than American women; French men live just over three years longer than American men. Our infant mortality rate is 72-1/2 percent higher than theirs. And 30 percent more Frenchmen smoke than we do, and they consume almost twice as much alcohol. Who knows how much more butter, cheese and fois gras?

Worried about waiting for a doctor? Or a hospital bed? The French have 37-1/2 percent more doctors than we, and way over twice as many hospital beds, per capita. Worried about choice? French hospitals are 65 percent government run and 35 percent privately run. Take your pick. The health-care system pays. You also get to choose your doctor.

The difference in the quality of service is difficult for Americans to comprehend. In France, doctors routinely make house-calls. Patients aren’t thrown out of hospitals because the insurance companies decide when it is time to go. They stay until doctors decide it is time to go. The French government pays 75 percent of all health care costs. Most of the rest is paid by private insurance. If somebody can’t afford private insurance, the government makes up the difference.

The bottom line: We pay 43 percent more for health care than the French do, and we get a whole lot less for our money.

George H. Lesser has reported for more than 30 years on international political and economic developments for both U.S. and European publications. He has been based in Washington, New York, London and Brussels, and lives in Washington D.C. and Florence, Italy.

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